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James Cleverly: The UK's new foreign secretary accused of ignoring Gulf abuses

Liz Truss appoints staunch ally to succeed her in top foreign role, who has been criticised over cutting aid to Yemen and UK arms dealings
Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with new Prime Minister Liz Truss on 6 September 2022 (AFP)
Britain's Foreign Secretary James Cleverly leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with new Prime Minister Liz Truss on 6 September 2022 (AFP)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

James Cleverly, the former minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), has been appointed as the new UK foreign secretary. 

Downing Street announced on Tuesday that Cleverly, who was most recently education secretary, would lead the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as part of new Prime Minister Liz Truss's cabinet reshuffle. 

Truss, who defeated rival Rishi Sunak on Monday in the final round of the Conservative leadership election, was herself the foreign secretary since September 2021. 

Cleverly, 53, is a staunch supporter of the new prime minister, throwing his weight behind her leadership bid in the early stages of the process. 

He served as the minister for the MENA region from February 2020 until the role was axed in February 2022. The new government is set to restore the ministerial post, a foreign office source told The National on Tuesday. 

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As Middle East minister, Cleverly met with Iranian officials in November 2021 to discuss a return to the 2015 nuclear deal and negotiate the release of British-Iranian nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori have since been released and returned to the UK, with Tahbaz released temporarily on furlough in July. 

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During the Gaza war in May 2021, the new foreign secretary told parliament that "Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack". 

The Israeli bombardment of Gaza left 256 people dead, including 66 children, while rockets from the besieged enclave killed 13 in Israel.

Following the war, Cleverly would not say whether British arms sold to Israel were used in Gaza. 

He told parliament: "The UK has a robust arms export licensing regime and all export licences are assessed in accordance with it."

In line with UK government policy, Cleverly has criticised the building of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, but suggested last year that the recognition of a Palestinian state was not a "priority issue".

Yemen aid cut and Bahrain rights abuses

Cleverly was heavily criticised last year after announcing that the UK would halve its foreign aid to Yemen, as part of the government's controversial pledge to slash its foreign aid budget from 0.7 percent of the GDP to 0.5 percent.

The decision came at a time when the UK government confirmed that it would continue selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which has been accused of killing thousands of civilians. 

The former MENA minister maintained a close relationship with Gulf nations, visiting Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

He was in Bahrain when the country appointed its first ambassador to Israel following former US President Donald Trump's conclusion of normalisation deals with several Arab countries. 

Cleverly has been criticised by human rights activists for appearing to justify the arbitrary detention of six children by Bahraini authorities, and was urged by MPs to sanction Bahrain officials accused of torturing political prisoners. 

In response, he said: "We are better able to influence change through engagement, dialogue and cooperation.

"Our close relationship with the Bahraini government and civil society, including non-governmental organisations, gives the UK a privileged position to positively influence developments on human rights."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institution of Rights and Democracy (BIRD), told Middle East Eye that Cleverly had "failed" on human rights issues. 

"Having witnessed James Cleverly's responses to parliamentary questions related to Bahrain in his role as MENA minister, his failure to acknowledge human rights challenges in the country was a major issue," Alwadaei said. 

"He repeatedly misinterpreted the grave reality of the rights landscape on the ground in Bahrain, in desperate attempts to justify UK taxpayer-funded programmes to Bahraini institutions shown to be implicated in serious human rights abuses."

The campaigner added that there was a "lack of transparency" over the Gulf Strategy Fund, a secretive fund through which the UK doubled money to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as revealed last month

"We hope to see a shift in the Government's handling of the fund, and wider questions of rights in the Gulf, under [Cleverly's] leadership," said Alwadaei.

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